I'm sure you've met the type: self-important, usually unbelievably verbose, completely certain his opinion is the most salient piece of information you're likely to ever receive, with equal parts smarm and geekishness rounding out his personality profile. What's that? No, I am not describing the average online critic. I am describing that certain kind of self-appointed expert who is sure if he acts like someone important, he's sure to become one. You might think this propensity is a fairly recent phenomenon (perhaps even one linked to internet use, where "experts" run rampant), but the charming comic novel Diary of a Nobody, which first appeared in the British humor magazine Punch over a century ago, proves that people of this ilk have been around since time immemorial, driving the rest of us slightly batty.
This effortlessly charming 2007 television adaptation by Andrew Davies is a tour de force solo performance by Hugh Bonneville, who essays Nobody's titular clerk Charles Pooter (the surname has entered the public lexicon as an adjective to describe this type of social climbing idiot who takes himself much too seriously). If you're unfamiliar with this particular type, aside from thanking your lucky stars, you might think of Pooter as a sort of precursor to the twit of Monty Python fame. Bonneville struts and preens, directly addressing the camera, and brings the oafish (yet somehow just slightly lovable) Pooter to charming life. This four episode journey through the trivialities of Pooter's pretty humdrum existence is given surprising visual variety, despite the bulk of the series consisting of Bonneville's "first person" addressing of the camera. We get a mini-tour of Pooter's modest flat, as well as his workplace, and Bonneville dons several different costumes as the four episodes play out.
The humor here is written in the small details, like Pooter fuming over his name being left out of the London paper's "society" column. A letter of complaint results in him and his wife being listed as Mr. and Mrs. Potter, which of course further enrages him, leading to a correction in the paper which then lists him as Mr. Pewter. As someone who regularly sees both his first and last names misspelled, I could kind of commiserate. Throughout the episodes, Pooter comments on his "lovely" family, his wife and two sons (one of whom is improbably named Lupin--perhaps inspiration for yet another hilarious Monty Python skit, albeit about the plant). While all of these relatives make various missteps, Lupin seems to be following in his father's improbable footsteps all too readily, falling in love with a less than socially acceptable woman (one who has theatrical ambitions, something a social climber like Pooter simply can't abide), and also seemingly unable to find employment (not that he's actually out there looking for any, mind you).
The series does take a couple of very minor missteps when the isolated duet of Pooter and camera is occasionally broken. In one of the office scenes, Pooter wears what he thinks is a stylish new outfit (of course it's nothing less than ridiculous) is greeted by some offstage whistles and laughter. I actually thought I had heard neighbors outside my window until I replayed the scene--that's how unnatural it seemed after close to an hour "alone" with Pooter. Some other, more natural, sound effects, like a rainstorm that Pooter comments on seemed more organic and therefore less troublesome.
Hugh Bonneville may not be a familiar name to a lot of you, but he has an incredible list of credits in British film and television. I recently immensely enjoyed his work in the delightful miniseries Lost in Austen, where he perfectly portrayed the slightly befuddled, yet charming Mr. Bennet of Pride and Prejudice fame. Bonneville's unassuming manner, which might initially seem all wrong for someone of Pooter's pretensions, actually works to the characterization's benefit, by making Pooter somehow more human and at least slightly less obnoxious. Production values, while minimal, capture the late Victorian era perfectly, especially as it must have been experienced by a lower middle class clerk eager to better his station in life.
One of the more remarkable adaptation efforts in Davies' storied (no pun intended) career, The Diary of a Nobody is one of the most unusual and singular (in every sense of the word) British television productions I've seen recently. While it may not be laugh out loud hilarious, its consistently sharp observations about boorish behavior make it never less than enjoyable, and frequently will bring at least a giggle or two to the lips of anyone who's ever encountered their own personal Pooter.